Saturday, June 12, 2010

To Tell the Truth

For years I’d been satisfied with the Christian history education I’d received: evil revisionists were rewriting the past, smearing the splendor of America with outright lies of oppression, male chauvinism, and racism; the Confederacy wanted simply to protect the states from an early vision of Big Brother (I never could completely agree with this claim but often felt guilty for continuing to believe the Civil War to have been about slavery); and westward expansion was our Manifest Destiny, so move over Indians!

My time at college overlapped for two years with my younger brother’s. Since I was pursuing a B.S. in English education/history education, and he a B.A. in English/history, we took many of the same history courses and had the same professors. John repeatedly warned me that we weren’t being educated so much as we were being indoctrinated. I didn’t believe him. “But they’re telling us the truth,” I’d say. I didn’t mind being indoctrinated with the truth.

After graduating, I took a job teaching junior high at a small Christian school. I taught a variety of courses that first year, including one U.S. history class; but the next year, the school grew, a history teacher was hired, and my fate was sealed: I’ve taught English ever since. I still had an interest in history (and my history training certainly helped as I taught chronological presentations of American and English literature) but didn’t read any history until my husband went to the spring 2009 Friends of the Pensacola Public Library booksale. For a dollar, he picked up a book that opened my eyes.

Written by revisionist historian James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong asserts that American history textbooks are full of hero worship—making men such as Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson look almost infallible when, in actuality, they were like all people: flawed, having both good and bad qualities, making both good and bad decisions. Loewen's book related neglected (suppressed may be a better word) tales of Columbus’s savagery, early British settlers’ unwarranted attacks on Indians, and racism among both Confederate and Union leaders. These stories—supported with quotations from primary sources—certainly hadn’t appeared in the Christian history textbooks I’d learned and taught from. Coming across such knowledge disturbed me. No doubt, some secular historians emphasize only the negative: that’s not the whole truth. But Christians, who believe Jesus’ words that “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32 NRSV), aren’t telling the whole truth either.

Reading Lies My Teacher Told Me gave me my first impression that something was wrong with Christian history texts,* but over the next year, I didn’t give history much thought. Then I read a book by conservative biblical scholar Wayne Grudem. Grudem demonstrated that the Bible clearly condemns slavery by quoting Ex. 21:16: “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” (AV). He also referenced I Tim. 1:10 where Paul includes “slave traders” in a list of other law breakers such as “murderers, fornicators, [and] sodomites” (NRSV).^ I was stunned. First, I fault myself for not being a more careful reader of Scripture, but, secondly, I fault the Christian textbooks I’d learned and taught from for not mentioning these verses in discussions on antebellum slavery and the Civil War. In nine years at Christian day schools and four in a Christian college, I’d never seen a statement indicating that slaveholders and supporters of slavery were biblically wrong. No doubt, the moral depravity of slavery is a given, but I’d always inferred that slaveholders were unenlightened since slavery was a societal norm, perfectly legal in the South, after all.

Maybe my recollections are wrong, I thought. Perhaps I’d made inferences from my textbooks that I wasn’t meant to. Not able to let the matter rest, I dug a Christian U. S. history book out of our storage closet. Feeling every bit a scholar, I looked up each reference to slavery. What I found disgusted me even more than my recollections.

A few statements in United States History: Heritage of Freedom actually seem sympathetic toward the slaveholders. Students are told that “’King Cotton’” shackled the South with the seemingly permanent institution of slavery.”** Yes, many field hands were required in order to harvest the large cotton crops, but to say that the South was “shackled” is a startling verb choice. When one is shackled, he is under the power of another and has no choice in the matter. Later, readers find more sympathy for slave owners: “A Northern factory owner could hire or lay off workers as he pleased, but a Southern planter had to provide for the welfare of his slaves and bear the expense regardless of a poor harvest or other temporary circumstances.”^^ Are we to believe that the South was a victim? Are we to do right only when it is convenient but are free to ignore biblical injunctions when our economy is at stake?

Additionally, the abolition movement gets little coverage in this textbook and most that it does get is negative. While radical abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Nat Turner are given four paragraphs, Harriet Tubman gets two sentences. The Civil War chapter is no less biased, including extended biographies of three Confederate war heroes but none on Union military leaders. (It could be argued that Grant gets his due later in the book when his presidency is discussed, but the absence of Union biographies is unbalanced at best.) In the biography of Robert E. Lee, the debatable statement that “Lee opposed slavery”*** is made. While Lee never owned slaves in his own name, he did inherit dozens of slaves upon his father-in-law’s death. Opinions vary regarding this ownership and his treatment of the slaves, and I do not pretend to know where Lee really stood on the issue; however, in the interest of the whole truth, the fact that he did inherit these slaves should be mentioned in the textbook. Lee’s biography closes with “Throughout his life, Robert E. Lee displayed the admirable characteristics of leadership, humility, compassion, and dedication to duty.”^^^ In this remark, I see the same hero worship that Loewen mentions. A man can have these very traits and still have a blind spot. We cannot neglect the fact that he fought to protect a right that was morally and biblically wrong. (Many will say he was not fighting for slavery but for states’ rights. But the particular right that ignited the conflict was slavery. In my opinion, there is no getting around the fact that fighting for the Confederacy was in actuality fighting to uphold slavery, an institution that the Bible clearly condemns.) Just as the Bible details King David’s heroics and devotion to God while also including his failures, should not a Christian history textbook present the whole of a man like Robert E. Lee?

What is my point? Certainly, I’m not trying to attack the Christian publisher (whose parent company I worked for and wish no ill upon) or to undermine parents’ faith in the quality of their children’s Christian education. Instead, I’m calling for a return to truth—the whole truth. When my daughter goes to school, above all, I want her to learn the truth. Many times it will be uplifting and inspiring, triumphant and glorious, and make her proud of her identify as an American. But other times the truth will be ugly, embarrassing, heartbreaking, and maddening. Perhaps those blemishes on America’s record will encourage her generation to make fewer mistakes, to reach out in greater Christian love to people of other races, to see where America needs improvement in her own time. I simply ask for honesty, for we have nothing to fear from truth.
* I am referring to books by the two largest Christian textbook publishers. Having been educated in high school with books from one and in college by the other and teaching eighth grade history from both, my experience is limited to only the two. I know there are several smaller Christian curriculum publishers. If we choose to homeschool Ashley and hersoon-to-be sibling, I will acquaint myself with the other companies in hopes of finding a history text I’m comfortable with.

^ Grudem’s book, Encountering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism, as evidenced by the title, is not about history or textbooks. His chapter on slavery refutes certain connections evangelical egalitarians try to make between slavery and the barring of women from particular
roles in the church.

**Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, Kurt Grussendorf, United States History: Heritage of Freedom, 2d ed. (Pensacola: A Beka Book, 1996), 240.

^^ Ibid., 273.

*** Ibid., 291.

^^^ Ibid.


Autumn said...

Well, your history knowledge is much more extensive than mine; but I must admit that I have always wondered about the whole slavery issue. How one man could ever own another and think it right directly opposes the American idea to me. Judging a person by the color of his skin or the place of his birth boggles my mind. Perhaps the problem may stem from an ignorant idea that heroes have to be perfect. I don't know why we think they should be, when in reality, they are much more likeable when they are a little bit like us--wrong occassionally, or better yet, often. I suppose, i have a tendency to bury my head about the harsh reality like many people; but I would hope that I admit that all heroes make mistakes. If nothing else, it gives me hope for myself and those that I know the best.

Kevin said...

Heather, would you mind if I pasted here what I stated on this topic on your Facebook post?

As for Loewen, do be careful--in reading his work, I've detected that his driving force appears to be more cynicism rather than an altruistic pursuit of truth, causing him to be open to some of the same historiographical mistakes he accuses others of making. That being said, you are absolutely right that conservatives are also quite guilty of rewriting history to suit their own agendas as well, which breaks my heart on a professional level as well as on a personal or spiritual level.

Kevin said...

One of the greatest shames and heartbreaks of my life as a young, would-be history teacher was sitting silently as we were told point blank by Mrs. Horton to avoid teaching the Civil War and civil rights since they were "too controversial." As I matured, I like to think that I started to reassert myself, at least in the classroom and with my colleagues regarding these events in an effort to address the truth, regardless of hurt feelings or revisionism born of either left or right-wing hobby horses (I know it started to create a bit of a divide between me and some of my former colleagues). I know the history of slavery in America is nuanced, defying easy answers (it was an American problem, not merely a southern or northern or western problem, and I say this as a Northerner), but it still should be confronted from the foundation that it is a human evil that should never have been allowed in the first place, let alone tolerated. (Segregation and "Jim Crow" after abolition is also poorly addressed, which is especially despicable considering how it was fellow Americans that were being treated this way by other fellow Americans, some of whom tried to justify such treatment and hate along religious lines--disgusting. Again, I know there are sometimes no easy answers, especially when the modern civil rights movement got hijacked by the likes of Al Sharpton, but it doesn't change the fact that segregation was a blight on America, and should be confronted as such.)

I also believe the aforementioned publishers' treatment of American Indian history is also weak (read the portion on Wounded Knee, if you can stand it--for the record, I tried to have it changed to a more historically accurate telling, but I was overruled by editorial staff.)

As for the topic of slavery, I had always known and believed it was wrong (and always hated it when people misused Scripture - the Gibeonites, the studded bondservants, Onesimus - out of context to try and defend the sin of slavery). But it was difficult to articulate this in the face of institutional intransigence based upon contrary views on the topic. I did what I could but lament that it was obviously not enough. (And don't get me started on the "discussions" over the causes of the Civil War and the "real" Abraham Lincoln . . . I still fret over neo-Confederate propaganda being passed off as indisputable historic truth . . . )

And btw, even without those specific Scriptures you mentioned, there is much indirect evidence in Scripture that would warrant moral outrage over slavery, not the least of which is the Golden Rule, but one would hope that would go without saying . . .

Geoff said...

I think your comments are clearly written, but to me they open a fundamentally pedagogical question (not necessarily a historical accuracy question). It seems to me that the real question you are asking is "How much of a complex historical topic need be covered in a high school text, and how does one decide exactly what to include?" I don't think you can include ALL the points about the Civil War in a high school text; this then requires a discussion of what criteria will determine what is included. This is NOT a simple thing to address.

Let me give you a quick analogy to what I mean in an area I understand better, i.e. math. I do not consider it inappropriate to teach 2nd graders that you can never subtract a larger number from a smaller number, although it is a lie. It is a pedagogical necessity to provide a simplified arithmetical framework at first, and later proceed to teach about negative numbers (in this case).

So...what will be the criteria to establish high school (and elementary) history curriculum? (Of course, home schooling allows one freedom to supplement areas one wants to address.)

Kevin said...


You raise a good point about there being only a finite amount of material that can be taught to a jr. high/high school audience, forcing a necessary "picking-and-choosing" of what goes in and what stays out. The problem that Heather is trying to illustrate is how the events are presented and whether or not they manipulate what is taught to fit a particular agenda or point or view regardless of whether or not it conforms with established facts or truths. The lament being expressed is regarding how sad it is that Christian conservatives succumb to this kind of historical revisionism just as surely as the secular liberals do.

AllRusty said...

I had wanted to read this when you posted it, and I finally took the time to get all the way through it. :) I was never very good at history, mostly because I'm not good with straight up memorization. :/
My sisters and I only remember being taught the confederate side of history, but we always attributed that to that fact that we grew up in the South and had a good ol' country boy for our high school history teacher. I think we learned Confederate history three years in a row. The only time I remember discussing something besides the Civil War in high school was during the election of 2000. I also don't remember actually using out textbooks in class, either.
I agree with your request that the truth be told, especially in our Christian textbooks. It is sad that while a great stand being taken for the correct Biblical text so that the truth is not twisted, we can't expect the truth to be clearly presented in other subjects.